Beyond boundaries

Cricket encounters between India and Pakistan come with the inevitable mix of passion, paranoia, politics and propaganda. Like the central event in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a match between these two countries is interpreted differently by a variety of stakeholders and spectators. Often we take away from such a match only what we want to take away.

Take the iconic Australasia Cup final of 1986. For an entire generation it is remembered just in terms of the “victory or death” last ball — Chetan Sharma’s full-toss and Javed Miandad’s massive six. A quarter-century on everybody talks of, exults at or agonises over that final delivery. Nobody recalls the compelling 99 overs and five balls that preceded it.
This should not surprise us. An India-Pakistan clash is much more than sport. There are extreme emotions at play: great hostility interrupted by irrational affection and a contemplation of history’s ifs and buts. This was most apparent, for example, during the Indian tour of Pakistan in 2004, perhaps the happiest cricket series of all.
My favourite story from then is of a strait-laced Maharashtrian cricket journalist walking around the bazaars of Peshawar. He was accosted by a burly shopkeeper who enquired if he was from India. Our man nodded; his interlocutor jumped and pushed him into an inner room. The sports writer was decidedly in panic, seeing visions of a long innings in a Taliban camp. It turned out the shopkeeper was a cricket fan and wanted to give his Indian guest a gift. He put something in his visitor’s hands and informed him it was the best cocaine in Peshawar, and it was his for free!
There are other moments when an India-Pakistan cricket match can seem nothing but the latest skirmish in a primal conflict. A rampaging Pathan takes on a seasoned Maratha campaigner, or perhaps a devil-may-care Jat Sikh. Could this be Panipat 1761, Jamrud 1837 or Saragarhi 1897? Maybe it’s only Shahid Afridi plotting the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh.
Can one trace Indo-Pakistani diplomacy through cricket matches? Between 1952 and 1961, the two teams played each other three times. The cricket was tepid: two successive series ended 0-0. Nevertheless, cricket tourists crossed the Wagah, old friends met again. Lala Amarnath was only team manager in 1954-55, but was welcomed as Lahore’s prodigal son. Nostalgia was still fresh; the Cold War hadn’t consumed both nations yet, hadn’t forced them into irreconcilable camps.
As for the cricket, it did serve up its delicious ironies. The first India-Pakistan series was decided when the hosts won at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay in November 1952. India took a 2-1 lead, which it retained by drawing the remaining tests. Two centuries were scored for India at the Brabourne, the first hundreds for a predominantly Hindu nation playing against one crafted by Muslim secessionists. The century makers were Vijay Hazare, a Christian, and Polly Umrigar, a Parsi. Somebody in the Great Pavilion in the Sky had a sense of humour.
In 1978, it took new regimes in Islamabad and New Delhi — General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship and the Janata Party government respectively — to accede to the first test series since 1961. The testy Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-Indira Gandhi relationship, with the Bangladesh War and the Shimla Conference as its baggage, was sidestepped.
In 2004, it was Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf promising a new start. That sentiment extended to the Manmohan Singh era: to Pakistan’s arrival in India in 2005, and India’s return visit the following season. Soon enough, the diplomacy began to taper. When 26/11 crippled it, cricket could only fall by the wayside.
The intensity of India-Pakistan cricket needs to be distinguished from its frequency. For India, the hyper-nationalism probably peaked in the 12-15 years between the mid-1980s and the end of the 20th century. In the 1980s, India and Pakistan began to play each other more and more, in home and away series and in biannual tournaments in Sharjah. By the 1990s, television had converted limited-overs cricket games to gladiatorial contests, with Imran Khan infamously likening playing India to jihad. Every India-Pakistan match — wherever it was played, Toronto to Singapore — began with war bugles being sounded.
Gradually there was simply so much cricket between the two countries — partly a result of their greedy administrators, allies in global cricket politics, milking the hyped-up rivalry — that the crowds began to pick and choose. You couldn’t rev up emotions every week, could you?
India has played (and beaten) Pakistan four times in the 50-50 World Cup. Only once has it really mattered, in 2003, when Sourav Ganguly’s XI smashed Pakistan and almost everybody on its way to the final. In 1992 and 1999, victories in a sub-continental sideshow were small consolation as India crumbled overall and Pakistan marched to the final. In 1999, the World Cup match was played during the Kargil war, with Manchester police worried about a spill-over effect. The game itself was pointless. India was all but out of the tournament.
Three years earlier, on the other hand, the World Cup quarter-final in Bengaluru captured the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry at its most intense and pulsating — or at its ugliest. There was a context to this frenzy. By 1996, India had lost its way after the initial surge of economic reform. Cheered by the generals in Rawalpindi, the Taliban was at the gates of Kabul; Kashmir had become India’s bleeding wound; a war with Pakistan seemed imminent.
By 2003, in contrast, it was a more confident India (and Indian team) that took on Pakistan in a fine game in Centurion, South Africa. As it grew as an economy, middle India developed other priorities. It still wanted its cricket team to beat Pakistan, as it does this week, but there were (and are) also other things it wanted in life. Today, the ability to shrug shoulders and move on — and the opportunity cost to not doing so — is greater than at any time earlier.
May this essential equanimity (easy to miss while watching over-the-top news television shows) come through this Wednesday night. Admittedly it would be nice if it were preceded by an Indian victory.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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